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Saturday, July 21, 2018

A Votre Service – At Your Service

Coucou!” Monsieur Bar Fly is drunk. It’s two in the afternoon, and JL has been here all day, swilling pint after pint of Cardinal beer. He steps outside every five minutes to smoke. He’s lonely. Bored. And I’m one of two people at this auberge (inn) he can target. I try to blend with the dining room furniture when JL finds me again. “Coucou!” I’ve already seen him several times this week, and feel familiar enough and annoyed enough to let him have it: “Pas ‘coucou!’ N’avez vous rien de faire toute la journee?”

Translation: “No ‘coucou’ [in this case, ‘hello’ and ‘peek-a-boo’ at once]. Don’t you have anything to do all day?” No. It’s JL’s day off, and this world offers two choices: pickling his liver and scarring his lungs.

The monsieur is one of several characters who frequent the restaurant and inn my friends, Anne and Arthur, own. Called L’Armailli (pronounced larm-ay-ee), it’s named after a herder of cows and goats and has lived in Anne’s family for generations. It’s not a place you stumble upon, more than 1100 metres (3600 feet) above sea level, in the Valais region of Switzerland.
View from the dining room

This is the third time Fiona and I have been to Mex. The first visit, Fi was 14 months old and I was newly pregnant with Finley. Sean noticed the small village included teenagers. “Maybe one of them would want to be a nanny in Spokane,” he said. We asked around, and found Anne. She lived with us for six months, in 2007, when Fiona was three and Finley was about a year-and-a-half. Anne patiently bore Finn’s bedtime refusals and didn’t panic when she couldn’t find Fiona’s preschool. She went to camp with us, shared our celebrations and empathised with our sorrows. Even at 19, she had wisdom. And she’ll always be family. Anne and Arthur visited Spokane after Sean’s death and the kids and I returned to Switzerland to stay with them for several days in 2010.


Drive about an hour and-a-half from Geneva, leave the highway at Lavey and look for signs saying Epinassey/Mex. Then, at the base of the mountain, breathe deeply. Clear your mind. Pray to the driving gods for a successful journey. For five kilometres, you’ll switchback on a road mostly wide enough for a single vehicle, but one that often sees two cars driving in opposite directions. Tour buses travel the road, too. Near the top, pass under a bridge, then navigate two narrow tunnels. Honk your horn to let other drivers know you’re coming, because only one of you can pass at a time. Try not to fixate on a sign indicating falling rock, especially while motoring beneath a large limestone overhang.

Near the top, pause as you encounter a small white Renault. In a polite game of chicken, wait to see who’ll reverse. Thankfully, it’s Renault, because you’re not sure how far back you’d have to roll before finding a space wide enough for two cars.

Exhale and smile upon seeing Bienvenue a Mex (Welcome to Mex). You’ve arrived. And could probably use an adult beverage, though not so many you’re coucou-ing strangers.
Fiona about to savour the plat du jour: stuffed tomato

Follow the sign to the town’s only restaurant. Step inside to the sunny front room with gasp-worthy Alpen views. During summer, l’Armailli is open seven days a week, from 9am until whenever. Anne will greet you with a smile and “Bonjour” before asking what you’d like. In the kitchen, her husband, Arthur, whips up plats du jour and other fare such as sautéed chicken and potatoes; pasta shells with vegetables and cheese; enormous stuffed tomatoes; sausages with fries; and fondue. He makes tons of fondue. If there’s a fondue going, you’ll smell it: the stinky-socks aroma of Gruyere and Emmenthal cheeses, mixed with white wine and kirsch (cherry) liqueur. If you’re lucky, Arthur will add an egg and remains of a bottle of Jack Daniels (because there was no Cognac) towards the end of the pot after the children finish eating. It’s like a lucky dip for adults that finishes with a kick. If you have any room after fondue (probably not), there’s crème caramel, ice cream or cherry clafoutis for dessert. My new fat cells and I recommend the last one, a French dessert with carmelized top, though again, do not attempt this manoeuvre after diving into a vat of cheese.
Arthur's lucky last dips fondue

On fondue night, a group of eight or ten had reserved a table in the bar where they could watch the World Cup: France versus Belgium (France won, which equals a happy native Parisian chef).  About an hour before the group was due, they cancelled. Anne removed some of the settings and left most for us: her family of four, me, and several regulars.

Hours before the game, one of those regulars, Madam O, introduced herself, saying she’s from Siberia. “I don’t meet many people from Siberia,” I said, before correcting myself. “I haven’t met anyone from Siberia.” O had just returned from the Yukon, in Canada, where she and her daughter had won a performance category in a First Nations festival. When I asked what kind of performance it was, she sang, motioned, and made grunting sounds similar those of the Maori haka of New Zealand. O typed her name into my phone to show me she’s well-known in indigenous circles.

Anne had noticed during our girls’ night at the hot pools, my feet are ticking time bombs. Beyond Morton’s toe and rhinoceros heels, I also have reddish-purplish bands running outside both feet, possibly a combination of poor circulation and pounding pavement while running. Anne suggests trying medicinal leeches, which looks and sounds disgusting, but would be better than surgery or injections. Meantime, my friend asks O if she’d look at my problem. “She’s a shaman,” Anne says.

O tells me to remove my flip flop and place my left foot on her lap. She holds it, squeezes, then bows her head and says something while making clicky-smacky sounds. “Wait three days and it will be better,” she says. “Thanks,” I say. “How about my other foot?” O gives me a look indicating “Don’t press your luck.”
O and Anne on fondue night
We sit, awaiting football and fondue, O with her beer and me with water. She tells me two family members were killed earlier this year, and she must return to her home country to perform a ceremony. I tell her I’m sorry. When she tells the story a fourth time, however, I start to wonder. O says, “I’m very drunk.” That explains it. Not that the tragedy isn’t true, but repetition of the same information was concerning. Later, Arthur tells me he likes O, and the world would be a boring place if we were all the same. “She has character. She’s different, and it’s not something you see every day.” This is why he and Anne have succeeded in hospitality. They possess not only a tolerance for unusual and sometimes, annoying, guests; they embrace people’s quirks.
Arthur and Anne

Another reason my friends have endured is their astonishing work ethic. The two of them handle everything at l’Armailli, from bookings, to cleaning to cooking and serving to more cleaning. They have two young children, ages three and five. Anne told me when Arthur burned himself with hot oil, he waited hours before seeking help because the restaurant was full (help took the form of a telephone call to a guerisseur/healer. Apparently, lots of Swiss people call these numbers when they’re hurt. Arthur says he had a second-degree burn, yet there’s scant evidence on his skin).  Anne was working the day her waters broke with her youngest child. Thankfully, her chef father-in-law and his wife were there to help. The new mom-of-two returned to work shortly after the birth.

Mex is nestled in a region famous for hiking trails, so trampers come to spend a night and have a meal. They enter, all sinew and bone, boots wider than thighs, bearing bulky backpacks with collapsible walking sticks tucked into the sides. One woman in her sixties, who couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds, downs a pint of beer, then promptly asks for another. If you’d hiked some of these steep paths, you might want a pint or three, as well.
Hiker's paradise: Mex, Valais, Switzerland
The innkeeper business will soon be in the rear view mirror for Anne and Arthur. After four years and two children, they’re ready to leave 14-hour (oftentimes more) workdays behind for a less hectic life in France. Anne has already trained in a discipline related to physical therapy, and if her session with my creaky body is any indication, she’s very good. Like Anne, Arthur will succeed in whatever he does.  

It’s been one week since O tried to heal my multi-colored foot. Upon careful examination I see – no change. At I have a new story to tell.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Soddisfatta - Satisfied

                Soddisfatta - Satisfied

Winter in New Zealand left me cold and hollow, with appetite for little else but turning up the heat. After less than a week of Italian summer, I’m warm and sated. Full of pasta, bread and gratitude. Sono soddisfatta. Sono sazia. I’m satisfied. And full.

Sofia, Fiona, Finley

We stayed with our former exchange student, Sofia. Her parents’ three-story house was built in 1928 in the shadow of a church whose bells toll each half hour. The village of 1000 people sits north of Milan. Sofia’s dad, Bob, fetched us from the airport, setting the tone for five and-a-half days with the Franchinis. Rather than play the role for which I’m self-taught --floundering tourist -- I was, instead, housed, fed and driven to interesting places. Spoiled. Viziato.

Maya Angelou said people will forget what you said and did, but will never forget how you made them feel. For me, it’s the same with place. I might blank out this excursion or that monument, but emotion about a location and its people is a lasting souvenir. The feeling I have about the start of our European trip is one of contentment and of being care-taken. That sense borders on strange when you’re custodian and chauffeur to two busy, needy kids. Thankfully, it’s possible to loosen your grip and relinquish the illusion of control, just as it’s possible to laugh after swilling liquid resembling lemonade, which is, in fact, limoncello – alcohol. It burns slightly when mistaken for yellow sugar water.

For our first lunch, Sofia’s mom, Alessandra, serves pasta shaped like olive leaves bathed in pesto and olive oil. Tiny flakes of fresh parmesan fall like snow as I grate a thin blanket of cheese. I inhale aromas of basil and olive oil as the first bite enters my mouth. The final group of leaves requires a fork chase. I’m victorious in the end, spearing each slippery leaf until the bowl is bare.

Meals are capped off with espresso and fruit. After devouring a heaping bowl of carbohydrates accompanied by Gorgonzola cheese, there’s still room for an apricot. Maybe two. My appetite, apathetic the past few months, has emerged from hibernation announcing she’s ready to party. Something else has happened – my watch reports an average resting heartrate in the 40s. It had flirted with 60 back home. I’d like to think olive oil and wine are miracle health boosters, when in reality, going on holiday and having few responsibilities likely deserve credit.

We visit Milan’s enormous Duomo, waiting in a 30-minute queue in 30-degree (86 Fahrenheit) heat. Another former exchange student, Vittoria, who travelled from Turin to meet us, buys candles for Fiona and Finley inside. “Who did you light them for?” I ask, knowing the answer. Daddy. A trickle forms in the corner of my eye. The kids performed the same ritual eight years ago, when I brought them around the world the first time, lighting candles from Paris to Melbourne.

Nearly as impressive as the more than six centuries-old Milan cathedral was Finley’s lunchtime feat. He stuffed down an entire margherita pizza, working out from the center. Hand motions and deep breathing conveyed the image of a maestro at work.
Yes, he ate the whole thing.

Finn takes turns annoying and entertaining us with his riff on an advertisement he created for a fictional product delivering “naturally curly hair.” He delivers commentary in a British accent, so the script sounds like “CAH-lee hey-ah

As an aside, I do not recommend sitting across from Finley on a train from Italy to Switzerland. The scenery you’ve been looking forward to – the Alps – will be punctuated by “OOH-OOH-OOH…” and you’ll stop gazing at mountains to tell Finn to CUT IT OUT.

Another aside- do not read stories about young Thai soccer players trapped in a cave writing heartfelt messages to their parents while on the train because you might start crying.

Let’s talk pizza. Italian, wood-fired pizza with bubbled, smoke-flavored crust. We visit a lakeside pizzeria at Lago Monate, which our hosts tell me is the cleanest of local lakes. Pizzas are preceded by Mojitos – large, minty, not-too-sweet. I order pizza with zucchini, pancetta and shrimp. Fiona gets cherry tomatoes with a large egg of fresh mozzarella in the middle. Finley’s pizza is layered with pancetta, close enough to bacon for his meat lover’s heart. I drink red wine with my meal and the kids and I share a small cup of tiramisu, which means I get two bites. It’s okay, as I couldn’t finish my pizza. Sono sazia.


We tour a monastery built into a cliff bordering Lago Maggiore called Santa Catarina del Sasso, whose walkway is lined with wisteria; and Borromeo castle, with its astonishing collection of cute and creepy dolls.

The highlight of one lunch alongside Lago Maggiore is the view and a crisp, pale beer served in a wine glass. While I love gnocci, I learned I do not adore it painted with turmeric sauce. I finish Finley’s tomato sauce version instead. Fortified by food, the kids and I jump from Bob’s sailboat into the lake, cooling off after a day baking in sunshine.
Next time, tomato sauce

Jumping into Lago Magggiore

On land in Laveno, we enjoy gelato which Fiona pronounces “best ever.” My two scoops – chocolate and American cheesecake, are rich and flavorful, caressing my taste buds before slip-sliding down my throat into a celebrating stomach.

We enjoy most dinners outside, in view of the pool or a World Cup soccer match on a TV which has been turned to face the outside. Our first dinner, eaten at 9pm, is barbequed spare ribs and sausages. Another night, it’s baked chicken with peppers and onion; the following evening melon, prosciutto and broccoli, and on our last night in Comabbio, pasta shaped like braided ropes –strozzapretti. “I hope you don’t mind pasta again,” says Alessandra. Not a bit. Neither do I mind crusty bread or wine – Italian whites which taste of summer and satiety. The only spoilers at our post-8pm meals are mosquitos, who feast on us as we dine. By morning, my welts have mostly disappeared, though Fiona’s linger for days.
Dining al fresco

Our final meal is a hasty lunch before catching our train. “You don’t want to eat the food on the train,” says Alessandra. “It’s expensive, and it’s horrible.” She and Sofia prepare butterfly pasta mixed with last night’s sautéed zucchini. I make time for toast. Fruit can wait.
Alessandra and Fiona

When we’re not en route to a train, we have time between dinner and dessert for discussion – about Sofia’s time at university in England; about politics; about the region and travel abroad. Conversation becomes nightcap, when there’s no drive home later, no morning commute to work. Maybe I have room for a piccolo limoncello. This time, on purpose. Sono soddisfatta.






Saturday, July 7, 2018

Sleepless in Dubai

                                         Sleepless in Dubai

A friend told me, as the kids and I embarked on our world tour eight years ago, the word  “travel” originated from the French word “travail,” which means work.  Travel may be less onerous today than in ancient times, but it’s no baguette-and-brie picnic when you spend ten hours in your departure airport, 18 hours in the air and arrive at your hotel at eight am, exhausted, smelly, wearing teeth wrapped in pashminas.

This is the state in which Fiona, Finley and I arrive in Dubai. After a snack in the hotel coffee shop and too-brief nap, we hop a hotel shuttle van to the Dubai Mall. Spending three seconds outside in 40 degree Celsius/104 Fahrenheit heat morphs me into an ice cream seeking missile.
 Inside the world’s largest mall (by area, at nearly 6 million square feet, with 1300 shops), we bustle past the two-story wall of water containing an aquarium and settle on serve-yourself, pay-by-weight frozen yogurt. It’s pricey in New Zealand and ridiculous in Dubai. I nearly shriek as Finley attempts to pile gummi bears atop his mountain of soft serve heaped with chocolate. “Those are really heavy,” I say. Our frozen treat was around $30 for the three of us, the same as two sandwiches, porridge and two donuts at the hotel.

We taxi to Atlantis at the Palm, an extravagant resort on a man-made island (shaped, naturally, like a palm tree), to visit the Aquaventure Park. Walk around in an oven all day after 30 hours in transit and a 30-minute nap? Sounds reasonable.
We ride the river on inner tubes. Conveyor belts elevate the tubes before shooting us into rapids, where we swirl and twirl. We’d left our sandals where we started, figuring we’d pop round the river and grab them at the end. Except we can't find the end. Soon, we're hot-footing it around each bend, seeking rubber footwear to save our soles. We finally find the shoes.

We had planned to meet my friend Veneta and her kids, Olivia and Josh at the water park. Fiona spots Veneta about an hour after our arrival. Soon, the kids are off together on the slides.

Meanwhile, my eyelids feel as if they’ve been dipped in concrete and I succumb to a brief nap in a lounge chair. Heat provides a wake-up call. When the kids return, they drag Old Mom on two large tube rides with steep drops designed to test multiparous women’s bladder control.

Back at the Dubai Mall, we watch three spectacular fountain shows set to music. Next door, the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, presents its own music and lights show. We did not summit the tower’s 828 metres (2,717), as the air was too hazy during our two days in Dubai to merit the expensive elevator ride.

Dinner at the Social House is pleasant, with views of the two spectacles at once. I peruse the restaurant’s drinks menu in search of beer, but find only mocktails, juices and sodas. I’d forgotten – no alcohol in Dubai cafes and restaurants unless they’re attached to a hotel. My lemon and lime fizz with fresh mint is delicious, though likely contained 500 percent more sugar than an IPA.

We farewell our friends, who would leave tomorrow, also en route to Europe (also without husbands/fathers, both of whom stayed in New Zealand for work), and head downstairs to the taxi queue. It’s Saturday night, and a dozen other people await rides inside this underground blast furnace. A woman wearing a shirt marked Royal Smart Limousine waves the kids and I over from the marked taxis to a Toyota minivan with no top light, and no meter. My Spidey senses say grab the kids and run, but my jetlagged brain can’t compute fast enough. “Eighty dirhams, no more, no less,” says the woman to the driver. She has just arranged a ride to our hotel that should’ve cost around 50 AED (around $13 USD).  Fatigue smothers judgement. We take the ride. Once at the hotel, I hold out my credit card, as I’d already done for two other taxi drivers. “Oh, no credit,” says the driver. He drives me three minutes to another hotel where I pay 26 dirhams ($7 USD) to extract money from an ATM. So now the ride costs 106 AED ($29 USD).

I am boiling with rage. If I were a person who swore at strangers, I would’ve called him a scamming son-of-a-bitch. But I’m not, and this dude is just a cog in a machine. “Never again!” I snap as I slam the door. Limousine, my ass. Take your minivan and shove it.

Once in our room, I fire off an email to Royal Smart Limousine, telling them I was overcharged and forced to pay extra to get cash. The next morning, a representative from RSL and I exchange a series of emails where he tells me the driver has been reprimanded for not informing me his credit card machine wasn’t working, but that the company offers premium service and charges higher rates during peak times. I explain I didn’t want a “luxury car,” and felt taken advantage of when I was shunted away from metered taxis to the “limousines.” I’ve already drafted complaints to the taxi licensing body and tourism board in my head when RSL informs me they will, in fact, refund me 50 AED. I tell them this seems fair. It feels like vindication.

Our second and final day in Dubai, we revisit the mall to scope items on the kids’ wish lists. They’ve saved their money for clothes and shoes. Fiona buys overalls and a shirt at Forever 21. Finley buys skater shoes on sale at the Vans store. I drag the kids back to the taxi stand, where an RSL employee meets me to deliver my 50 AED refund. But not before taking a photo of me with the money. I imagine my pasty, jet-lagged face framed by Krusty the Clown ringlets on the company’s website with the caption, “I love Royal Smart Limousine. They save me lots of money!” Fiona and I decide not to frame this hard-won equivalent of $13, but instead, spend part of it on manicures for her and me while Finley plays a videogame in the middle of the mall.

I restrain myself from taking close-up photos of women wearing niqabs, coverings that leave only letterbox openings for eyes. At the fountain show, a woman with covered head and exposed face smiles and laughs. I wonder what it’s like for women wearing a niqab to not be able to express themselves in public. I wonder if little girls walking alongside their shrouded mothers know enough to envy their brothers, who will never be asked to conceal their faces. It’s a lot to take in at a mall.

We dine in the food court, and at 7pm, start making the 700 metre or so trek to catch the shuttle van. Descend three escalators, zig, zag, this way or that? Over here… we’ve nearly found the main entrance when Fiona stops and yells, “My bags!” She has left her bags somewhere. So has Finley. Despite the air conditioning, I’m steaming again. We sprint back through the mall, zig, zag, here, no, there – up three sets of escalators. To the Vans store – two bags found. To the food court – another bag. Fiona can’t find her backpack. “My phone is in there!” she cries. We ask about lost and found. It’s down three floors. It’s 7:20. No way we’ll catch our van. “You both are paying for the Uber,” I tell the kids.

The friendly staff at lost and found say don’t worry, they’ll look for Fiona’s bag. By now, Fi is crying, thinking about all the photos she’ll lose if she doesn’t retrieve her phone. I tell her no one wants an iPhone 5. It’s 7:28, and we’re waiting to hear about the bag. “We can still make the van,” says Finley. “No, Finn. We can’t.” We stick around to await our lost item.

Five minutes later, an employee delivers Fi’s bag. Her phone is there. It’s all there. I order an Uber, and Manayil rolls up in his Lexus. An actual luxury car. The ride home costs 50 AED.

We catch three hours of sleep before our 12:30 am wakeup call. By 1:30, we’re back at the Dubai airport, navigating a stream of sleepwalking travellers. At 3:30 am, we’re airborne again, this time heading to Milan.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Happy 57th Birthday, Sean

               Happy 57th Birthday, Sean

It’s the shortest day of the year in New Zealand, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the day our Prime Minister gave birth to a baby girl. The kids and I have a another reason to celebrate and be sad - today would’ve been Sean’s 57th birthday. 

Tonight, I showed Fiona photos of Sean taken the month before he got sick, when we were on holiday and when he took her to kindergarten on her first day. Fi looked at me with big, sad eyes, saying, “I’m glad we have those photos, because I’m forgetting what Daddy looked like.” I hugged her, and told her I understood, that she’s proof Daddy and I loved each other. If it weren’t for Fiona and Finley, most days I wouldn’t believe Sean and I had been married ten years. It was another life, a period marked by our babies’ arrivals, the move to a new neighborhood and the start of new jobs for both of us. We were percolating with possibilities until one of us vanished. We were no longer. No we, just me - and kids.

It’s been eight years since Sean died, and I feel like a new widow. I’m grieving more deeply than normal, thinking of him more than usual and I’ve unintentionally dropped about 6 kg (around 14 pounds) the past eight months, just as I did in the months after I lost Sean. Damn, I wish I could bottle that stuff, or write a how-to book. I’d be rich. You’re supposed to be able to run faster with less weight, but I find I’m slower these days. This pisses me off.

I feel guilty about foisting 2018 problems on the husband who died in 2010. It seems unfair to dump on him that way, like finding religion after a terminal diagnosis. Too little, too late? Mostly, the kids keep me - I keep me - too busy to wallow. A reckoning will come - the empty nest meltdown. All the grief work I postponed in the months and early years after Sean’s death will boomerang and whack me in the head. 

Aside from summer holidays, Pete (husband #2, which makes me sound like a socialite), hasn’t lived with us full-time since mid-September. That’s when he started his third flight school job within a 12-month period. He returns home every other weekend for fewer than 48 hours, because it’s a four-hour drive. One-way. I do not recommend this arrangement. It’s supposed to be temporary; we said we’d give it a year, something I regretted about three months into the experiment. 

I feel like a solo mum again. Nearly all the dinners - just me and the kids. All the taxi runs - me and other mums and dads who carpool. Nearly all the nights - alone, though if I’m lucky, the kids will sit in the front room with me while I read and they watch their flickering screens. Twenty minutes on the phone each night is a sparse substitute for a face-to-face debrief with another grown-up.  It’s lonely, and not the life I expected. I didn’t expect Sean to die, either. I joke I repel men, and maybe I should switch teams. A friend reminds me lesbians have relationship issues, too. 

It’s not all thunder and gloom. I am, after all, used to running the show, and the kids and I are heading out soon for an adventure. We are a threesome again. Also, unlike many people who are truly suffering in our community, we have a home, heat, and food in the pantry. 

See? This was meant to be a remembrance of Sean and I’ve turned it into a tiny pity party for one. I just slapped my own hand. Breathe. Why does everyone tell you to breathe? It’s involuntary. It’s gonna happen on its own. Like birth. Like death. Sometimes, breath must be the focus, because it’s hard to complicate breathing. Or forget it. Like how I worry I’ll forget Sean’s look, laugh, dozens of hiccups after too much Tequila, being outed by coworkers for smelling like steak au poivre, the careful walk along an icy South Michigan pier, a picnic where I reveal the gender of a gestating Fiona. Or was it Finley?

Memory is slippery and malleable. We think we know what happened - where we were, who we were with, what we did. I don’t. I need photos, journals, Facebook, gentle nudging and understanding when it takes a while to marshal a memory I used to own. So much has happened. How do you remember all the colours of the horses on a spinning carousel?

Fiona places three small candles in a chocolate-frosted, chocolate chip cupcake and lights them. Finley starts singing, “Happy birthday to you…” We serenade Sean, whereever he may be, and the kids blow out the flames. We hug. Fiona asks for another tissue before picking up Ally, who she’s convinced is Daddy, re-packaged in a fluffy white-and-caramel-colored dog suit. Ally licks her tears. I’m pretty sure the dog was chewing her own poop last night, because I found a nugget when I came downstairs this morning.

That’s life. Just when you find a whisper of peace, imagining the spirit of your dead husband within your beloved dog, you realise the dog has eaten feces.

Happy birthday, Sean. We will always love you.

Sunday, April 10, 2016



The guy with the light-brown hair. It's his fault. From a distance, I catch a half-second glimpse of Sean. Fancy meeting my late husband in New Zealand at his ten-year-old's school swimming day.

Not-Sean clambers up the steep bleacher seats at the Mount Maunganui College pool, just feet from where I sit. I steal a glance, and of course, he looks nothing like Sean. Only the color of his hair and maybe the outline of his nose is faintly reminiscent. It's enough to send my fingers digging into my purse like a dog scratching for lost treasure - only I'm looking for a tissue to dab my watery eyes and blow my nose. Sunglasses help.

So it happened, on this sixth year after Sean's death that I'm crying at the pool. It's a little more than a month after the anniversary of his death. For the first time, I forgot about January 23rd, oblivious to its significance as I enjoyed the waning days of the grandparents' visit with us and the end of the kids' school holidays. What could we have been doing that was so important, to make me forget? I check my calendar: I ran in the morning, had lunch with Dad and Kathe at Tay Street, played on my paddle board and hosted Jo and Rob for dinner. 

In other words, nothing catastrophic happened. Has that day become nothing special?

I watch Finley get trounced in his first heat, swimming three lengths of freestyle against classmates he says are nationally-ranked in their age group. The next races happen against regular boys, and Finley wins his heats racing one length of freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. Each time, he emerges from the pool and climbs onto the bleachers to see me, and after a while, when Pete arrives, to see his stepdad, too. I give Finn thumbs up. "Well done, Sweetie. Proud of you." 

Within the past month, my give-it-a-go guy has lost a consolation round at a tennis tournament to a kid who hyperventilated, then took a 20-minute time out before returning to the court to beat Finn (players are only allowed three minutes for time out before the other player wins by default); he wasn't chosen for a squad to play soccer in Australia; and he narrowly missed getting into his school's fun day sports competition. He needed this victory day.

His dad didn't get to see Finley's wiry, brown body dive too deeply at the start but still comfortably win his breaststroke leg; he didn't see Finn touch the wall or trot over to recount his achievements and ask for snacks. Sean didn't see it. But I did - and that makes me happy. And sad.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Nearly Dry

Nearly Dry
January was wet, wet, wet...

It’s the first of March. This means I can let myself drink alcohol again. I spent the month of February dry. That’s not entirely true – I did, after all, give myself a hall pass Waitangi weekend (Feb 6-8), indulging in a glass of sparkling wine after a 24-kilometer (15 mile) relay run and two glasses of white wine on our wedding anniversary the following night. My big, boozy weekend. 

Over summer, a pattern had crept in – I’d have a drink almost every day. Granted, that drink was often light (2.5% alcohol) beer or a small glass of wine. But I was consistent, and Iooked forward to that drink. While I like to think I'm a Midwestern-born moderate, if I had to categorize my relationship to alcohol on Facebook, I’d say, “It’s complicated.” It’s fun to feel the effects of a couple drinks. It sucks to see the effects of chronic use in people I love– lost dollars, increased weight, accidents, illnesses, break-ups, hours of lost sleep and squandered opportunities at the altar of the Almighty Drop. 

For five years, the New Zealand Drug Foundation ran a campaign called FebFast, where Kiwis took part in a month-long non-drink-a-thon to raise money for organisations working on alcohol and other drug issues. The Foundation has quit doing the campaign (citing ‘limited resources’), but some of us still use the shortest month as an excuse to abstain. https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/febfast

Kiwi culture is bathed in booze. It might slowly be changing, thanks in part to a new law reducing legal blood alcohol limits for driving (from 400 mcg per liter of breath to 250 mcg for those 20 years old and over) more than a year ago. The government late last month reported Kiwis consumed less alcohol last year, but the same number of drinks. We’re still drinking, but knocking back less beer, wine and hard stuff. Gin and whisky are so 2005. 


 We have more choices now – two-thirds more low-strength (2.5%) beer was available in 2014 than in 2013. You’ll find more flavored waters in stores than you can shake a toilet brush at, and ordering a mocktail at a bar is no big deal.

This is fine if we choose to test our mettle, asking: can I celebrate without alcohol? (I failed twice at this task in February, but also succeeded twice). Be angry or down without alcohol? (a definite yes for me, though I cringed when a neighbour reported taking his frustrations out on the fridge, meaning he’d had a bad day at work and felt the need to down something cold and fermented). I’ve done this small abstinence exercise before, and each time I’m reminded of the momentary discomfort of declining a drink. Living with healthy discomfort - like risking rejection, running faster, even disciplining our kids - makes us stronger. Booze can be the pacifier we turn to for solace, for company, for commiseration and celebration. All too often, our ‘mate’ leaves us lonely, fat and broke. Some friend.

The problem with dry months is people most likely to do them are least likely to need them. If you rely on a daily beer, wine, whisky, gin – it’s improbable you’ll stop, even for a single week. “I’m not an alcoholic because I don’t attend meetings; therefore, I don’t have anything to give up” is how I picture the thought bubble above the head of someone who depends on that daily drink. Screw you and your sanctimonious seven dry days. 

Why bother? Limited evidence shows taking part in a dry month challenge could lead to long-term changes in drinking patterns. A study looking at 857 UK adults taking part in Dry January found two-thirds of participants successfully gave up drinking for one month. Successful abstainers and those who did not succeed had increased powers of abstinence and reduced consumption patterns up to six months later. There’s hope for slackers like me.  http://www.nhs.uk/news/2016/01January/Pages/Dry-January-can-lead-to-healthier-drinking-patterns-long-term.aspx

Working on a feature article about craft brewing this week, I got to taste three different kinds of beer on March first, breaking my (almost) fast. The beer had heaps of hops and much malt, so a little went a long way. I can drink to that. Or, choose not to.

Have you ever had a dry month? How was it?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Whipped and Chained

Whipped and Chained

“When are we gonna be there?” asks Fiona. “Can we get out?” asks Finley. I don’t know, and yes. We’re driving from a lodge in New Zealand’s central North Island – in Ohakune – to the ski field at Mt Ruapehu called Turoa. It’s early in the season, but there’s enough snow (81 cm) to ski. First, we must get there. We navigate three kilometers of the 17 kilometer (about 10 mile) road without a hitch. I snap photos of snow-covered pine and fern trees. We never see snow at sea level, where we live.

The road gets icy, and a line of cars forms. The Ohakune Mountain road becomes a parking lot. It’s a barely-moving conveyor of cars and minivans unequipped for these conditions. The road requires either four-wheel drive or tires (tyres) with chains. We have neither. Actually, we have a four-wheel drive sitting in the garage. It’s part of Pete’s collection of possibly useful items which mostly sit in our garage.

We’re in Pete’s work car – a Toyota Camry hybrid, which must wait like all other unsnow-worthy vehicles – for chains. Pete doesn’t know anyone who uses snow tires (tyres) on the North Island, because aside from mountain areas, there’s no snow.

The kids and I leave the car to stretch while Pete sits in the line-up. Finley power lifts a chunk of snow and ice the size of his head, heaving it over the side of a cliff. Fiona scoops small pieces of snow and later accompanies Finley so he can urgently wee on a tree. We finally reach the front of the line. Pete pays $30 for chain rental and installation, and two young people (one of whom is eating a sandwich), spend five minutes wrapping chains around the car’s two front tires (tyres). Pete suggests I reach into the glove box and grab two treat-sized chocolate bars I bought for him to give the chain gang. Fiona and Finley excitedly hand them out.

Somewhere between the start of the line-up and the chain installation, I get a text message. It’s from a woman I respect and admire and wish I knew better. She tells me, after I call, she needs to stop doing the thing she’s been doing for us (which I’m not mentioning because I don’t know how public she is about her illness) because her cancer is back. It has spread to her liver and lungs. I tell her how sorry and sad I am and ask the standard questions, ‘what next?’ and ‘what can I do?’ while feeling helpless, hopeless and shitty. I’m still annoyed at the parking line up and devour a bag of homemade trail mix while thinking about the evil ways in which our bodies are whipped and chained.

Why does everyone get cancer?

They don’t. It’s just so in our face, like crumbs in a toaster; confusion at the checkout counter, or the maniac riding the rear bumper. But cancer is more than omnipresent annoyance. It’s omnipresent killer. It robbed the planet of my Aunt Cheryl (aged 64); it threatened my mom (at age 55); and seems to constantly re-jigger its regimen seeking younger prey: who doesn’t know someone who has died before hitting 40, or even 30? Cancer has invaded the beautiful mind of my sister-in-law, who just turned 49. Our generation should be renamed - those of us born in the 60’s and 70’s aren’t Generation X, we’re Generation C – the cancer generation.

I feel weird writing about cancer because I don’t (yet) have it. Part of why I feel so helpless and hopeless and yes – relieved it’s not yet me – is because cancer may be the ticking time bomb that crouches in the closet of our colons, hides beneath the pillows of our breasts and nestles in the neurons of our brains. Sun causes cancer. Inactivity causes cancer. Too much food causes cancer. Every frickin’ thing we do (or don’t do) causes cancer. It makes me want to drown my sorrows in a fish bowl of red wine. But that causes cancer, too.

Here’s the thing: despite the viciousness of disease, despite its perspective-enhancing efficiency, small things still get to me. Like waiting in a line-up for two hours for tire (tyre) chains.

Try making sense of the senseless: when’s the last time hearing someone had a life-threatening illness made you think, “He’s an asshole, anyway. Probably had it coming…”

I’m waiting…

I popped over to a friend’s Facebook wall before sending her a message. My friend recently lost a friend to breast cancer, someone I didn’t know. The woman wrote this post before she died:

"I didn’t nearly get my “snow fix” this year, but I feel fortunate that I have been able to enjoy the warmer temperatures and spring light. Spring reminds me that life is juicy and resilient, but also fragile. It has been wonderful for me to have my family around so much these past few weeks, although it has been difficult and sometimes tearful. Don’t wait until the conditions are perfect, but rather try to make space in your life for things and experiences that really matter to you. Appreciate your health and all the other blessings that we often take for granted."I didn’t nearly get my “snow fix” this year, but I feel fortunate that I have been able to enjoy the warmer temperatures and spring light. Spring reminds me that life is juicy and resilient, but also fragile. It has been wonderful for me to have my family around so much these past few weeks, although it has been difficult and sometimes tearful. Don’t wait until the conditions are perfect, but rather try to make space in your life for things and experiences that really matter to you. Appreciate your health and all the other blessings that we often take for granted.I didn’t nearly get my “snow fix” this year, but I feel fortunate that I have been able to enjoy the warmer temperatures and spring light. Spring reminds me that life is juicy and resilient, but also fragile…Don’t wait until the conditions are perfect, but rather try to make space in your life for things and experiences that really matter to you. Appreciate your health and all the other blessings that we often take for granted” (with gratitude to the late Maria Rabb).

Conditions at the Turoa ski field were far from perfect (icy, rocky…), but I found pockets of powder. Moments of joy when my ski-shod legs did as my helmeted head instructed. So far from perfect, this messy life. It's too brief not to fixate on Finley’s freckle spatter; Fiona’s fringe of lashes; the tiny scar our puppy left on Pete’s cheek. Too brief not to run, cycle, ski – and write. Just for fun. Just for me. And if you related to any of this, just for you, too.

What are you making space for in your brief life?